Don’t Forget Joy: Working With an Independent Publicist as a Small Press Author

Nancy Reddy
From the November/December 2022 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

When Jenny Qi won the 2020 Steel Toe Books Poetry Award for her debut poetry collection, Focal Point, it was the culmination of more than a decade’s work. The earliest poem was written when she was in college, and she’d spent the previous four years shaping her manuscript. “I worked on this book for so long,” she says. “There were times when before I would get on a flight, I would send the latest copy to my friend and say, ‘If I die, can you please make sure you do something with this, because this is my life’s work.’”

Since she had put so much time and effort into the book, as the publication date with Steel Toe Books neared, she wanted to ensure she launched it as effectively as possible. “I wanted it to have the best chance in the world, and I didn’t think I could do that alone,” she says. Like many small presses, Steel Toe Books has a small staff and limited resources for publicity, so Qi knew she’d need additional support.

To launch Focal Point effectively she enlisted the help of Jennifer Huang, who was then working as an independent publicist at the Shipman Agency, a New York City–based speaking agency that also offers the services of literary agent Annie DeWitt and editorial consultant Mike Levine, as well as online writing workshops and craft seminars. (Huang, who is also a poet whose first book, Return Flight, won the 2021 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry and was published by Milkweed Editions earlier this year, recently decided to leave publicity work for other opportunities; the Shipman Agency plans to hire another independent publicist.) Huang worked with Qi on review and interview coverage, event planning, bookstore outreach, and pitching essays related to the book to media outlets. Because publishing essays related to a forthcoming book can be an effective publicity strategy, Qi and Huang worked together to place essays that touched on the themes in Focal Point. Qi shared a list of ideas for essays, as well as essays she’d already drafted, and Huang helped her decide where to send the pieces she had already written and helped her draft pitches for others.

Her work with Huang paid off: When Focal Point was published, in October 2021, the book was widely covered, with reviews in Nashville Review, the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Books, the Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. An interview with Qi appeared in the Rumpus, and essays related to the book were published in Literary Hub and the New York Times.

This kind of focused publicity support likely sounds like a dream to many writers publishing with independent presses, which typically lack the resources for customized and time-intensive work on publicity—and it might also sound like the kind of luxury only the fanciest, most well-resourced novelist could afford. But if you know where to look, you can find a growing group of independent publicists who work specifically with poets and small press authors and whose help is available for far less than the new-car cost of high-profile publicists. Whether you can stretch your budget for a full publicity campaign, or if you’re planning to go the DIY route in publicizing your book, there are some relatively simple tips and strategies you can follow to help ensure your book is not just published, but noticed and read.

Independent publicists work with writers on everything from securing review and interview coverage to planning events and book tours to pitching related essays and podcast appearances. In contrast to the typical in-house publicist at a press, who is tasked with publicizing every new book each season and may have a standard approach for every book published by the press, a good independent publicist can provide tailored support for a specific book and help a writer work toward their individual goals for the book and for their career. Leslie Shipman, founder of the Shipman Agency, says that the benefit of a freelance publicist is “having one person entirely devoted to your book.”

In addition to this practical support—following up on review copies, pitching review outlets, and so on—an independent publicist can help a writer strategize about messaging for the book and how to reach readers. Heather Brown, who founded Mind the Bird Media in Portland, Oregon, in 2015, says one of her goals is to help authors “think about where they want to sit in the conversation.” Brown is particularly interested in helping writers “think long-term about what they want their work to be about, beyond just the book that we’re focusing on in the moment.” (I enlisted Brown’s help in publicizing two books I launched this spring. She helped brainstorm pitches to podcasts, newsletters, and websites, and she also supported the publicity efforts of my presses by following up with journals to which the publishers had sent review copies.)

All the publicists I spoke with emphasized that whenever possible they want to work in partnership with a press’s in-house publicity team. Brown says it’s always her goal to build on and enhance the efforts of the publisher. Cassie Mannes Murray, founder of Pine State Publicity in Hillsborough, North Carolina, says she loves working with in-house publicists because of the opportunities for collaboration. “Any time you have more than one person thinking about a book, that’s better,” she says. Diane Goettel, executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, says several of her writers have hired independent publicists in recent years, adding, “I’m always so grateful when authors put their own money on the line for the success of their books.” Black Lawrence is typical of a small independent press; it doesn’t have an in-house publicist, but the editors do work hard to publicize their books through a newsletter and on social media, and they send review copies of books to journals. Goettel’s positive experiences with independent publicists spurred her to hire freelance publicist Caitlin Hamilton Summie to lead workshops on publicity for Black Lawrence authors and to help the press launch three books this fall.

Before hiring a publicist it’s important for writers to take the time to determine whether a given publicist is a good fit both for the forthcoming book and for their longer-term goals as writers. Publicists are typically willing to schedule a quick call to talk about their approach, including books they’ve worked on, experience and connections they might draw on to promote the book in question, and current clients the writer could talk to about their work.

Many publicists have developed a particular niche in terms of genre or writers at a specific stage in their careers, so you could start by making sure the publicist’s interests and background are a match for you at this particular moment. Heather Brown, for example, says she has worked with many authors on second books or those approaching midcareer, many of whom have had some experience with publishing and want more support as they launch a new book. A poet herself, Brown has worked on a number of poetry collections as well as young adult novels, lyric essays, and more. In terms of work she’s excited to take on, Brown notes, “I love hybrid stuff. I say that I love work that lives at the intersections.”

Cassie Mannes Murray, who is also an agent at Howland Literary, says that she’s primarily interested in working with authors published by indie presses; she’s motivated by working to get coverage for books that aren’t already positioned as best-sellers.

Another thing to consider is whether you want the focused attention and close connection you get from working with one person, or whether you’d like to work with a bigger agency, like Kaye Publicity or Nectar Literary, where writers have the advantage of working with a larger team on their book.

In any case, it makes sense to start the process with self-reflection—what are your dreams for your book, what is your capacity to work on publicity, and in what areas do you want help?—and to spend time learning about potential publicists before making a decision. The clearer you are about your goals and your working style, the better chance you have of finding a publicist who can help you achieve those aims.

The support of an independent publicist can come in many forms. A full publicity campaign generally lasts four to six months, spanning the time before and after a book’s publication, with most publicists preferring to start working on a book six months before publication date. That timeline is driven by trade publications and review outlets such as Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and Foreword Reviews that plan their coverage far in advance. At that early stage a publicist will also start building a media kit and compiling a list of contacts tailored to that book and the writer’s goals and target audiences. Julia Borcherts, publicity manager at Kaye Publicity in Chicago, says that when they start working with a writer, in addition to scheduling outreach for reviews and organizing podcast interviews, the agency also analyzes a writer’s online presence and works with the writer to build a platform that will help launch their book. She particularly recommends that writers have a regular newsletter to directly engage their readers.

The typical cost for a full-service campaign like this varies from $1,000 to $2,000 a month, with a commitment for four to six months. By contrast, high-profile publicists who work with best-selling authors published by commercial houses can charge somewhere in the ballpark of $4,000 to $5,000 a month for a six-month campaign. At Kaye Publicity, a six-month campaign that includes publicity, marketing, and community events typically costs between $9,000 and $10,500 total. Heather Brown at Mind the Bird Media charges $1,200 to $1,600 per month for at least four months. Alyson Sinclair of Nectar Literary says the agency’s fees vary from $8,000 to $14,000; at that higher range, she says, it’s usually a big fiction or nonfiction book for which the publisher’s already made a big investment and there are high expectations for the book, and the lower range is for a poetry book without plans for a tour or goals for placing related essays and articles.

Many publicists have developed strategies or programs to make their support accessible for writers who can’t afford the full fee, or who are willing to take on some of the work of publicity themselves. Alyson Sinclair says that Nectar Literary charges lower fees for poetry books and for books published by nonprofit and independent presses because Nectar wants to support writers who aren’t able to draw on a large advance to pay for additional publicity or whose presses have lower in-house capacity for getting the word out. Kaye Publicity has an Equity in Publishing fund that offsets the costs of a publicity campaign for writers whose voices are underrepresented in publishing. The fund is available to writers of color, nonbinary writers, LGBTQ writers, and writers with disabilities; interested writers should contact founder Dana Kaye. Borcherts says the fund was established in recognition of the fact that writers from marginalized groups have traditionally been offered lower advances, and Kaye Publicity wanted to ensure that those writers still had access to the kind of publicity support that could help their book reach readers. The Kaye Publicity website promises that the agency “will not let budget be a constraint when it comes to publicizing quality works from marginalized communities.”

To fit a writer’s budget, publicists are sometimes willing to craft a publicity proposal specifically designed for that writer’s needs. Poet Lisa Dordal, whose second book, Water Lessons, was published by Black Lawrence Press in March, says that when she first reached out to her publicist, Michele Karlsberg, she’d been slightly intimidated because Karlsberg works with a number of high-profile writers, such as Judy Grahn and Dorothy Allison as well as comedy great Lily Tomlin, and wasn’t sure if her fees would be out of reach. Dordal says she told Karlsberg that she had money set aside for publicity for her next book and asked what she would be able to do with that amount; Karlsberg worked with her to develop a plan that fit her budget.

Cassie Mannes Murray at Pine State Publicity also develops plans customized to writers’ individual goals and projects, along with their budgets. She works with ongoing clients on a monthly retainer basis, and she also takes on consulting projects to help writers work on more focused projects like building their brand, writing pitches and identifying target venues, and framing their books for media coverage. Her fees, and the flexibility of the project-based consulting model, are also designed with an eye toward equity. “I don’t want to turn someone away with a good book that deserves publicity because I am charging too much money,” she says.

Kaye Publicity offers several DIY options for writers: A publicist helps create a plan that the writer can then execute. These individual publicity and marketing plans cost between $750 and $1,500; with this option writers get a list of contacts, talking points for their book, and a calendar outlining when they should do different kinds of outreach.

Similarly, Alyson Sinclair notes that if a writer can’t afford her usual fee, she’ll offer suggestions of what else they might do with a more modest budget, such as a smaller book tour or attending book festivals, or the key things a writer could ask the in-house publicist to do on their behalf.

Some publicists also offer opportunities to help writers learn the skills of publicity for themselves. Heather Brown at Mind the Bird Media offers a Publicity for Authors workshop, intended both for writers who have a book under contract and for people who are looking to expand their presence as a writer. In these workshops, currently offered at a promotional rate of $185 for three two-hour sessions, writers talk about goals, personal branding, the themes and topics of their work, and what they would count as success in the promotional sphere. Kaye Publicity offers a membership group, Your Breakout Book, that aims to teach writers how to better publicize their own books and provide community support in the lead-up to a launch. Kaye’s Your Breakout Book costs $59 per month, or $590 per year, and includes live trainings led by Kaye Publicity staffers Dana Kaye and Jordan Brown, plus an archive of recorded video trainings. Writers can also add coaching sessions with Dana Kaye for an additional fee. Borcherts says this group includes both debut authors and midlist authors who want to continue to work on their marketing skills.

All the publicists I spoke with emphasized that they think carefully about the return on investment they can offer their authors, particularly small press poets and writers. “There are so many things that I think good freelance publicists walk away from because we don’t want to do a hard sell on something that we can’t justify, ethically or morally, in terms of how we can really come through for people,” Sinclair says, especially if the cost of a publicity campaign would be a stretch for a writer, or if it’s going to be hard to see a return on investment through sales.

When independent publicists talk about the value of their work, many of them focus on the long-term impact of increased attention for a book. “Review attention might help you sell your next book, or those interviews might help you get a full-time tenure-track job,” Sinclair says. “There are other goals that are in the work beyond sales.” She adds that if she’s meeting with a prospective client and “they tell me that their goal is book sales, I pretty much immediately say, ‘I can’t promise that for you. There are too many factors in the universe.’” Rather than seeing the results of a campaign in your first royalty statement, it’s a long game, Sinclair says; a writer “might see the payoff in two years, three years with building up their reputation in a way that helps them land another job, land another book deal.”

Whatever your budget, there are strategies you can put into place to help get your book out into the world. Jeannine Hall Gailey’s PR for Poets: A Guidebook to Publicity and Marketing (Two Sylvias Press, 2018) is an essential guide for writers who are either hiring additional support or going it alone. Gailey’s book covers everything from the practical—building a public relations kit and creating swag—to the philosophical, like why a writer should take ownership of publicizing their work. It also includes interviews with writers and editors who provide insight into the publication and publicity process.

Black Lawrence’s Goettel emphasizes that writers can have a big impact on their book without making publicity a full-time pursuit. “If you can carve out six to twelve weeks around the time your book comes out and devote five to ten hours a week to publicity stuff, it will make a difference,” she says. And for writers who have a smaller amount of money to invest in publicity, she adds, “Five hundred to a thousand dollars could really set you up for a nice boost.” For that amount of money, she recommends creating promotional postcards, investing in Facebook ads, attending a conference or a book festival, or hiring a designer to create media assets for the forthcoming book. Lindsay Lusby, a poet and graphic designer who worked on my books this past spring, creates promotional materials for writers, such as book tour graphics, postcards, bookmarks, and broadsides. Canva, a graphic design platform, is also a valuable resource for writers who want to take a DIY approach to design.

Poet Lisa Dordal is familiar with the tension that many writers feel about publicity: the desire to have their work reach as many readers as possible, without losing sight of the value of the writing itself, apart from sales numbers. While Dordal works hard on publicity, she is careful to note: “I don’t want to judge my work based on how many copies it’s sold. My work has value regardless of whether it makes it to a best-seller list, and I think it’s important for all of us to remind ourselves of that.”

Ultimately, she says, the most rewarding part of the marketing and publicity process is when her book reaches a reader. “I can’t tell you the number of times when one person would come up to me after a reading, and they were just really touched by something in the book—because they’d had a mother with alcoholism, because they’d experienced suicidal ideation, or they’d struggled with coming out of the closet, and those were the moments that really kept me going,” she says. “You can’t put a price on those moments, when someone says, ‘This book really touched me.’”

Dordal emphasizes the importance of reconnecting to the wonder and sense of play that brought her to writing in the first place. “Don’t forget joy,” she says. “That’s what this is all about.”


Nancy Reddy is the author of the poetry collections Pocket Universe (Louisiana State University Press, 2022) and Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015) and the coeditor of The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood (University of Georgia Press, 2022). The recipient of grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, she teaches writing at Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey. She is working on a narrative nonfiction book about the animal experience of early motherhood.